Artwashing and its complexities

Artwashing is a relatively new term coined by anti-gentrification protestors in the Boyle Heights district, creating a very interesting insight into the use of local artists and designers in areas amidst urban renewal in the UK. As argued by the protesters in California, the upswing of art galleries ‘forces out local shops and services and drives up property prices’. And while the concept is still quite similar in our society today: to entice young affluent buyers into a newly developed area or to mask the disparity of deprived places, the modern term has adopted a different meaning recently in the country’s capital.

Lately, artwashing has been described as a tool – oftentimes used by developers and corporate organisations – to employ local artists into producing artwork during regeneration phases in the built environment, typically displayed on hoardings or temporary structures. A storyteller in residence in Poplar from October 2015 to April 2016, Hannah Nicklin defines artwashing as ‘a term used to describe artists working with organisations and businesses in a way that makes them appear more friendly, gives them good PR, and helps them otherwise continue to do shitty things.’ 

The lines between socially engaged/community-engaged art and artwashing have become increasingly blurry. In reality, the ideas behind artwashing do not seem any different to an artist temporarily displaying their work on the walls of the Saatchi gallery. However, for many, particularly social activists, it causes some real concerns. Some believe community-led or local artist art is used at the forefront of commercial urban renewal to mask social cleansing. Glossed or washed over with the inclusion rhetoric (and therefore solidifying the term ‘artwashing’ itself). When done correctly, others often see it as a way to highlight talented young people, particularly students, young people or emerging artists, in their growing neighbourhoods.

However, most concerning is the role artwashing plays in the transition of an area. It’s one thing to have the local community create pieces of art, but it’s another if those same residents will be suddenly displaced, therefore contributing to its un-authenticity. Walking past a number of perhaps ‘socially damaging’ pieces recently, I started to formulate some questions of my own: What are the aims of this particular piece of art? Was it created by a local member of the community and what happens to the artwork after the hoarding is removed? 

As I understand it to be, in those cases, development branding has been utilised to conceivably conceal negative responses of the redevelopment or any illustrative objections to the developer’s aims, for example ‘offensive graffiti’, rather than as a means to showcase a designer and their work. Writer Stephen Pritchard explains the distinctions between multiple forms of art washing, specifically calling out ‘developer-led artwashing’ as ‘shiny bauble’ to distract from the ‘social cleansing’ of the area’ (initially depicted by Writer Dan Hancox, 2014). ‘In the worst cases’, he continues, it is a ‘distraction from the dirty business of clearance and demolition’.

 It has come to our attention that a new and ‘innovative’ art practice is coming to the area. It is an organisation that engages in… wait for it: ‘Social Art Practice’.’ – a screenshot from the Balfron Social Club, a response to the news of an art commission’ (Balfron Social Club, 2021)

Identical forms of ‘artwashing’ are seen all across London. In 2016, Hannah Nicklin, a storyteller in residence in Poplar recounts her experiences with artwashing and the repercussions of her work from social activists and residents of the Balfron Tower in Poplar, London:

‘I live in South London. I grew up in Lincolnshire. I am not local to E14. As a freelance artist and game designer I made around £25k last year. I don’t think that means I should never make art there. But I do think that making art in places which are counted as one of the most deprived areas in London should carry with them an awful lot of careful questions and thinking. I do a lot of work in socially engaged settings, and part of my work is always concerned with the harm we do in the world. Greater and lesser harms. I don’t believe art is worth oil money.’

She goes on to explain the role of the artist in urban renewal:

‘I am well aware that I sometimes work with partners within communities and the world in general (I can’t really think of any public money that’s not tainted) who are playing a damaging role in the lives of many of those same communities. Art and artists often play a role in gentrification’. To read her full insight, click here.

Nowadays, artwashing is commonly depicted as a developer’s financial gain and, more precisely, an instrumental tool to often enshroud the backlash of disagreement from local parties. I can understand the frustrations of social activists, especially when it feels like the use of their work is promoting displacement in their locality. Whilst I’m still unsure of the term itself, it does spark some questions which I feel we, as designers, architects and developers, should consider in terms of what our roles play in this dialogue. Could architects propose alternative spaces that could contribute to the permanence of community exhibitions and art spaces, not just during renewal stages but also post-tender? Are we integrating enough neighbourhood art into our proposed schemes from artists with lived experience of the area? And what actually makes an artist qualified to create a commissioned piece for a specific area or even at all?